A friend, who is both a yoga practitioner and accomplished in Aikido, was telling me about her test for her first-degree black belt. She lamented that yoga offers no similar system by which a practitioner may receive feedback. Lack of such feedback, she felt, may undermine enthusiasm for yoga practice and may not promote persistence.
In America today, yoga has become a system of exercise. Few practitioners understand the true purpose of yoga and the system of yoga that exists beyond asanas, the basic physical movements. This extended practice, sophisticated and refined, is generically called “tantra” or tantric practice. Yoga asana practice is intended to lead into and support tantric practice.
Hatha yoga is at the core of some of the earliest and most important tantric systems in India. A chief disciple of the yogi who was the receiver of all tantric revelation insisted that hatha yoga was the beginning discipline of any serious student of tantric practice. One significant facet of the development of tantra was the inclusion of practices to bring strength and flexibility to the physical body, a demonstration of the tantric philosophical view of the integration of body, mind and our field of life experience.
Unfortunately, in today’s common language, the term “tantra” may refer to any kind of alternative sexual practices in which people might engage. This profound and terrible misunderstanding is lamentable. Tantra is not about sex. It is about vital energy, which is the source of all experience, from the subtlest experience of yourself to the most distant experience of space. Tantra speaks to the total integration of the subjective and the objective. Tantra says “I” and “it” are one, unified in Consciousness.
Indian and Tibetan painting and sculpture are permeated by tantric iconography, often depicting deities in sexual union. This union represents the selfless and blissful union of the individual and the infinite, which is at the core of tantra. It suggests that, in this union, the infinite abundance inherent in divine consciousness becomes available to the individual. Through the intensification of the vital energy, this spiritual union happens and brings about the experience of emptiness of individual self and an overflowing of joy—the characteristics of liberation in tantric practice.
Tantra seeks through the awakening of vital energy to bring about transformation through the recognition of total integration of body, mind and spirit—total well-being. In the physical body, total well-being is health; in our hearts and minds, openness; in the field of life experience, prosperity.
However, tantra is not based on asceticism. It teaches that self-discipline and self-denial are different. Self-discipline, essential to tantra, strengthens the vital energy. Self-denial suppresses the energetic mechanism, undermining the respiration necessary for the release of toxic byproducts of living. In other words, self-discipline promotes flow; self-denial makes us constipated.
Like any dynamic creative event, the philosophy and practice of tantra have evolved through time. Tantra was initially quite distinct from religious practices. The word tantra emerged in South Asia in the very earliest period of writing, which is about the second century AD. The terms refers to various methods by which practitioners can attain two things:
The first is the release from the cycle of suffering that permeates all existence. This cycle arises from fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of ultimate reality. The accomplishment of this goal is liberation. The Sanskrit term for this is moksha.
The second goal of tantra is the acquisition of spiritual power, to be used for the benefit of other human beings. Any use of this power for selfish and self-interested means is understood to bring about the ruin of the person attempting to acquire it.
The real history of tantra remains hidden, because tantra is ancient, a system of practice most likely with roots in the shamanism of central and south Asia, long before written records. By the fifth century, an explosion of writing occurred, which led to an explosion of tantric scripture, both Buddhist and Saiva. These agama, or scriptural revelations, primarily communicated a wide array of information about the nature of ultimate truth and the individual human being’s relationship to it, and the means by which human beings could be liberated from suffering and acquire the power to do good in this world.
These tantric agama pervaded north India, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, all the way to south Vietnam. By the tenth century, the variety of philosophical and spiritual thought expressed in the early agama became condensed into a few systems in Buddhism and Saivism, which are primarily represented in Saivism by the Trika and in Buddhism by the Guhyasamaja and Chakrasamvara Tantras.
In short, tantric philosophy and its discussion of the nature of ultimate reality and the process by which experience unfolds were the center of gravity around which Hindu culture was organized during this period.
By the beginning of the thirteenth century, Islamic incursions into north India had undermined its social fabric, destroying the political, religious and economic institutions which had emerged from the great spiritual traditions of south Asia. Those Saiva and Buddhist institutions were replaced with Islamic-based ones intended to suppress, violently or otherwise, the systems that supported tantric philosophy and practice. Thus, authentic tantrism began to die out. Funds once channeled into education and patronage of spiritual organizations were diverted into defending the realm. In south India, the spiritual flowering that had made Indian culture vital for so long was replaced by religious organizations espousing a philosophy promoting the kingdoms’ military defense.
The final period of tantric development saw the emergence of Sri Vidya as the condensation of earlier tantric systems. Over time, Sri Vidya was absorbed into the practice of orthodox Brahmins. Most of its tantric underpinnings were removed, turning it into yet another ritual system practiced solely for the material gain of the practitioner and the people sponsoring the rituals.
In the last 30 years, science has come to understand that all physiological life is one, that each organism within an environment is dependent on all other organisms, and that the welfare of physiological life on this planet is dependent upon the welfare of all organisms that make up the environment. We are interdependent with all forms of life. This scientific understanding reflects the profound spiritual insights that emerged in India intuitively in the minds of the ancient tantric practitioners.
In the Bible, a Being separate from us created the world in a few days through His own will. In contrast, the tantric view is that the ultimate reality is Consciousness Itself, which pervades the entire universe, which is the power behind all process, of which human beings are the most complex and sophisticated expression.
For the sages, who through the power of their own insight developed tantric practice, the world was one and all diverse manifestations of life came forth from the creative power inherent in that oneness. Rather than a separate being creating separate beings in a differentiated environment, all life, according to tantra, has come forth as the creative expression of one dynamic Self-Awareness unfolding the universe much in the way a piece of music is expressed by a musician. The music arises from resonance, takes shape as a particular tone of vibrancy, has an impact on its environment, and then fades to make way for the next note and the next note and the next.
While various religions believe we are separate and distinct, dependent upon another being for our welfare, tantric philosophy views us as individuated expressions of a profound abundance and holds that within each of us, there is a connection to that profound abundance available to whoever seeks it. From the earliest moment of our emergence as an individual, we are connected energetically to our source, never separate, so that through cultivating the awareness of our own inner core, we experience fulfillment.
In tantric scripture, the model of how we come into being is called the tattvas, or stages, which show how ultimate Self-Awareness becomes condensed as creative energy into physiological life. This also shows how individuated physiological beings may establish themselves in their source, and in so doing, be relieved from the fearful tensions of the struggle for survival.
In the ocean, water is one. As water is heated, it changes its state and becomes vaporous, and that vapor, rising, cools slightly, condensing as a cloud. Cooling further, it condenses into separate drops, which fall to earth and organize into tiny streams, then creeks, then rivers, which flow again into the ocean. A total interconnectedness of water exists in all its various states.
Likewise, for us to discover and experience our own fulfillment, we must connect to the profound abundance at the core of our being. This we do through yoga practice.
Yoga was not initially about looking beautiful or being fit. It was and is about extending and contracting the muscles of our physical body in order to allow for the natural process of physiological respiration, removing toxic byproducts of metabolism from our system. Then the highest level of sensitivity to our deepest self becomes available to us.
Having cleaned out our system through asana practice, we become aware of that vibrancy of our physical body and of all the systems of which we are composed. Tantric practice teaches that the energy mechanism we are condensed into is a series of chakras and channels within our physical body around which physiological structure has organized.
There are essentially four elements of tantric practice: guru, mandala, mantra, and vital energy. Every tantric text of any tradition emphatically affirms that tantric practice begins with the finding of a competent teacher or mentor called a guru. The term guru means “bringer of light.” A guru is more than a conveyor of information. The guru is the living presence of the goals of tantric practice and the living contact with the energy that brings about transformation.
When the guru agrees to instruct the student, a formal initiation ritual is held, and the aspirant is shown a mandala. The mandala is a geographic representation of tantric cosmology and philosophy. The student is also given a mantra, which is a series of syllables that together form a resonance intended to be repeated over and over by the student internally, establishing the mantra’s vibration within the student. Mantra is also the form of the vital energy of the deity, which the mandala represents.
Increasingly, the mandala and the mantra’s resonance is internalized by the student. The aspirant realizes her or his vital energy is one with the teacher and with the ultimate source of all experience. The student’s practice becomes completely contemplative. Ritual is abandoned. Liberation is attained. Established in total well-being, the person lives out their life in service to humanity.
Through tantra, our capacity for perception and cognition is transformed, purified; these powers of perception and cognition are pivotal to our life. Turned within, they lead toward a recognition of total unity in divine consciousness. Turned outward, we fall into confusion and suffering.
As a culture, we are in need of people who are able to see beyond materialism to the source of human existence that gives real meaning to our lives and makes possible the discovery of our highest common interest. Tantric practice does this. Imagine if just one thousand people became serious practitioners. What transformation might be possible in this world, and what peace and abundance might be realized.